The vote on design thinking: four factors critical to getting it right


July 25, 2016

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The focus on digital integration in the public sector has never been greater. At the recent federal election, for instance, political opinion polls were carried out via digital and online channels and Australians completed the voting enrolment process online, influencing democratic participation in Australia.

While this evolution is changing the nature of interactions between politicians and the people, digitisation of the public sector extends well beyond the democratic process. Today, Australians have the opportunity to complete their tax, submit Medicare claims and manage their Centrelink benefits, all via digital channels.

Beyond this, the demand for the ongoing evolution of public sector services is clear, with more than half of Australian citizens surveyed by Accenture indicating their desire for greater digital engagement with government, and dissatisfaction with the digital public services currently available.

“Rich insights generated from research into citizens’ context, needs, fears and hopes present opportunities to disrupt embedded beliefs and practices.”

Governments and public sector agencies are clearly facing increased pressure to transform public services, from citizens, organisations and from within. Yet despite the clear demand, the vast majority of Australian public sector services still require conventional face-to-face or phone interactions.

The growing need for digital services, driven by the success of existing government digital platforms, but also the expectations of citizens based on their experiences with the commercial sector, has created increased pressure for the complete digital transformation of government services. Local, state and federal leaders are beginning to realise the power digital transformation has to completely reinvent the citizen experience. However, in order to fully embrace this evolution, governments need to understand how design thinking can revolutionise public service delivery.

The foundation of design thinking involves getting to the heart of citizen’s needs through the use of user research, co-design, rapid prototyping, constant feedback and experimentation to personalise and ultimately improve the citizen’s experience of interacting with government agencies. In doing this, governments face a complex task of understanding and tailoring services to a broad demographic. As such, innovation should be approached from the outside in; meaning governments should walk in the shoes of their citizens, reframing their perspective of how to deliver services by understanding what it’s like to be a person for example, immigrating into the country, trying to set up a business or making an application for a service. The rich insights generated from research into their citizens’ context, needs, fears and hopes will present opportunities to disrupt embedded beliefs and practices. This way of thinking will mean public services can move away from mass communications and begin finding ways to engage customers with personal, one-on-one interactions.

Critical to the success of design thinking in the public sector is the consideration of the following:

  1. Design doing. Design thinking is useless without design doing. It can be challenging for government agencies to embrace a culture of trial and error and rapid releases, however agencies need to recognise the benefits of experimentation, agile prototyping, iterating and optimising processes; in order to speed up the rate of innovation.
  2. Design culture. Public services need to create an environment for their employees that encourages design, experimentation and innovation. In the absence of a strong design culture, ambitious designers are often not able to express new insights and innovations.
  3. Top to bottom support. In considering the public sector as a design-led organisation, leaders must commit to being experimenters, improvisers and networkers who lead by example and set the tone for change on the ground.
  4. Design skills gap. Talent to execute innovation is in short supply and few governments are in a financial position to outbid private sector firms on pay. Despite this, the public sector has something to offer that private companies most often do not; the ability to do meaningful work for the public good. Furthermore, public sector bodies can upskill their current employees by partnering with design experts.

Governments around the world are starting to use design thinking to overcome issues in their digital services. For example, the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) needed to make applications quicker and more transparent, while allowing employees to complete tasks more efficiently. In response, Fjord created the eService ‘Enter Finland’, which leveraged a customer-centric, service design led approach to redesign immigration to focus on the core needs of different internal and external users. The project improved overall efficiencies through a better experience for all users, with an emphasis on the people planning to move to Finland to study or work. As an emotional and stressful process, the implementation of design thinking made an intimidating system more accessible and understandable for immigrants. It has been warmly welcomed and a 2016 survey of more than 2000 users found 93% of applicants gave it a positive rating, while 95% of users said they would recommend it to their friends.

The increasing implementation of design thinking into government services can also give rise to citizen empowerment, and the use of technology for social good. The White House for instance brought together the UN Refugee Agency and Kickstarter, known for crowdfunding creative projects, to raise money for the Syrian relief effort. The week-long partnership raised nearly $1.8 million, which will be used to provide necessities and a place to sleep for more than 7000 people in need.

The digital transformation of government services is underway. Increasingly, governments all over the world are starting to embrace principles of design thinking in an attempt to improve the way citizens interact with public services. Looking forward, public sector agencies need to enable the shift towards more personalised, secure and efficient digital interactions between citizens and organisations.

Bronwyn van der Merwe is the Australian Lead for Fjord, part of Accenture Interactive.

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